Outdated Excel spreadsheets caused thousands of positive Covid-19 tests to be lost

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The UK's health body has been heavily criticised after an error with Microsoft Excel (opens in new tab) spreadsheets used to track coronavirus test caused thousands of results to be lost.

Around 16,000 coronavirus tests are thought to have been misplaced by Public Health England, playing havoc with official figures and contact tracing efforts.

As a result of the blunder, tens of thousands of people that came into contact with coronavirus sufferers were not warned immediately, heightening the likelihood that others were infected unnecessarily by asymptomatic carriers.

The incident meant official infection figures reported on September 30 should have been 3,049 greater, figures on October 1 were undersold by a further 4,133 and on October 2 by 4,786.

The original numbers reported appeared to suggest the recent rise in UK coronavirus diagnoses was tapering off, which could well have had an impact on the government’s pandemic response.

After the error was discovered, the 16,000 missing results were added to the official records and the details handed over to the team responsible for contact tracing, who are now handling a vast backlog.

Microsoft Excel spreadsheet error

The culprit appears to have been outdated Microsoft Excel software which was simply unable to keep track of all the incoming results.

Although the maximum number of rows per Excel file (opens in new tab) sits at more than one million, it appears the system stored each test result in a new column instead (which max out at roughly 16,000 per file). This is thought to have been down to the use of older versions of Excel, which store far less columns in its .xls files than newer versions with their .xlsx format.

The files used to record positive coronavirus results have reportedly been divided into multiple smaller files to prevent a recurrence of the same issue.

Public Health England is yet to provide further clarification, but has released a statement suggesting that “further robust measures have been put in place”.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, criticsed PHE for using "legacy software", saying that the error "should never have happened".

Via The Telegraph (opens in new tab)

Joel Khalili
News and Features Editor

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.